First, a little background: Tim Powers is, of course, an SF writer. His first novel, The Skies Discrowned, was published in 1976. His breakout hit was The Anubis Gates, a tale of time travel, magic, and madness; it won the Philip K. Dick award and was nominated for the Locus Fantasy Award and the British Science Fiction Association award. As of this writing, he’s published about thirteen novels and five short story collections.
Powers is best known for his “secret histories,” that is, the way that he merges fiction and fact in his books. Many of his novels involve real historical figures and events, set against a speculative fiction backdrop of magic, weird science, and otherworldly powers. Even the magic he writes, however, tends to be well-researched and grounded in mythology — the voodoo in On Stranger Tides, for instance, is all based on traditional voodoo rituals, even if it takes a purely fantastic twist at the end.
I hadn’t known who Tim Powers was until Patrick asked me to write this article (a fact true of many of the attendees at Worldcon — I’ve been out of the SF literature scene for so long that many names are unfamiliar to me, to my eternal shame). Interestingly enough, at the same time as I’d asked Pat about what subject he wished me to write on, I had also asked my friends to recommend fiction about 18th century piracy, and one of the top recommendations was Powers’ On Stranger Tides. It is in fact an excellent book, but sadly I did not have enough time to read Powers’ other works before arriving at Worldcon.
I went to two events involving Powers — the first was a panel entitled “Consistent Magic Systems in Fantasy,” which concerned exactly what the title implies, that is, how to construct a magic system that feels believable and organic in a fantasy universe. The second was his Guest of Honor speech. I attempted to go to his Kaffeeklatsch, but unbeknownst to me it had been rescheduled from Sunday at 10:00 AM to Wednesday at the same time, so I had missed it by two days (much to my sorrow — I adore Kaffeeklatsches, and feel that they’re one of the best traditions of the SF con, and something that other media conventions might want to think about adopting).
In “Consistent Magic Systems in Fantasy,” Powers talked about his own personal methodology in making sure that the magic in his works feels simultaneously believable but also magical. While he agreed with the other panelists that the key to this was setting up rules and limitations on the way magic works, he cautioned against telling the reader too many of those rules outright, or defining them too rigidly. According to Powers, if you define the rules explicitly rather than implicitly, and magic just becomes another kind of technology and loses the quality that makes it magic. In his case, many of his books are based on real history, so he attempts to find magic that fits the time and place — ancient Egyptian rituals, Arabian mythology, Caribbean voodoo, so forth and so on, he researches these myths and legends and then adapts them into magical systems that work for his stories.
Powers and the other panelists also discussed acknowledging the effects magic has on the world you’ve created. In a universe where everyone knows you can talk to the dead, the legal system would be quite different than the one we have in our world, by simple virtue of the fact that in murders the victim could easily be interviewed. In addition, Powers mentioned his reluctance to blatantly defy all laws of science and physics: “I always worry, even though I have supernatural stuff going on. I don’t want to accidentally posit something that is absolutely impossible. I would never have an invisible man who could see by visible light. I might have two little retinas floating in the air. If I had a four inch tall man, I’d want to know can he talk? How much does he have to eat, how much space does he have for his brain? If you recognize these challenges and talk your way around them, it makes them look more real.”
Powers’ Guest of Honor speech was mostly about his philosophy in regards to science fiction and fantasy, peppered with anecdotes from his life. He talked a little about the general attitudes towards science fiction and how the field has expanded. When he went to his first convention, it was still possible to have read everyone in the field; now, it would take a lifetime. In addition, science fiction has mainstreamed — now more and more people have at least read one fantasy or science fiction novel. Yet when Powers talks about his work to his neighbors, they still say “Oh, that Buck Rogers stuff?”
When discussing his attitudes on the place of the fantasy and science fiction genres in our lives, he said that “Fantasy at its core is bogus.” There’s a sleight of hand, a trick, a bit of smoke and mirrors involved in making the reader temporarily forget that what they’re reading is fantasy and transporting them into another world. Powers fully believes that fantasy is pure escapism: while it’s perfectly valid for it to have deeper meanings or relevance, at its heart it should be designed to take the reader out of the mundane and into another world. Fantasy and SF that tries too hard to have a “point” or “purpose” falls flat for him — in the end, it needs to be truly fantastic for it to be fantasy.
As I said, I wasn’t able to get to his Kaffeeklatsch, but after those two panels, I really would like to read more of his work. Now, if only I can get the time…
Hope you enjoyed, Pat!